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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Smart Lighting vs. Dumb Politics

[Warning: the following blog post contains opinions that may be objectionable to politically sensitive readers. Please, if you care for Bunnies at all, read on.]

The picture currently is that RPI and BU are leaders in a $20 Million dollar research effort designed to give U.S. companies a leg up in a field that will become known as Smart Lighting. The whole idea goes beyond saving energy, although that’s definitely part of it. As U.S. energy secretary put it recently, this type of energy savings is the “low hanging fruit” in building a sustainable energy economy - one that does not rely on burning vast amounts of imported oil. Here are the facts:

  • 19% of electricity worldwide is used for lighting.
  • There are over 30 billion light bulbs in use around the world, with most of them being traditional incandescent style.
  • It’s estimated that all of these bulbs could be changed over by 2025, that the world would save 1 Billion Barrels of Oil each year – the equivalent of 250 nuclear power plants.Current lighting systems are beyond dumb – they’re just relics from a time when indoor lighting without having to burn kerosene or gas was a miracle of sorts by itself. What Smart Lighting entails is the use of LED lights (the type that are now used in that next fancy big-screen TV you want to get) to do several things:

  • Save lots of money
  • Last for a long, long time
  • Provide light that is sensitive to the amount of natural lighting available, so that your home or office is never too bright or too dim for comfort
  • Mimic the shifting color spectrum of light throughout the day, which works in support of our circadian rhythms. Yes, research says that current lighting in offices is not great for us, and that some folks react badly to it. This lighting will be natural.
  • Provide the bandwidth needed to send GHz of data wirelessly, using pulsed visible light. This would be especially useful on airplanes and other places where heavy copper wire networks are bad for lots of reasons.
  • And in a totally different setting, allow cars to communicate with each other and with traffic signals wirelessly, increasing safety

During George W. Bush’s presidency, members of both parties worked to develop legislation calling for higher standards for light bulbs. They ended up setting standards so that by 2012, light bulbs would have to be at least as efficient as the halogen bulbs you can buy today. Only the oldest style bulbs for sale today don’t make this standard, and they’re currently being re-worked by Phillips and other companies so that they’ll make it.

So who in the world would be against this kind of development? Well, Reps in Texas and South Carolina have written a law creating separate, worse standards for their states. The argument usually runs something like this:

“You can’t tell me what to do.”

I’ve gotta be honest – I cannot imagine a more backward-looking way to behave than this. With American kids fighting around the world in part to maintain our free access to oil, the people behind this kind of legislation aren’t just clinging onto the past – I really think they’re kicking away the future - in lives and money, while keeping us from moving in the direction of sustainability, which we simple must do.

The research money that our government is spending is designed to create a database of intelligence to help U.S. companies create a leadership position for our businesses in this area, which makes the sort of knee-jerk reaction to any type of standards just so frustrating to me. Being against U.S. energy independence is bad enough, but to be against the kinds of good quality jobs that are created by establishing U.S. leadership in an area is just not being a smart American. It's just an example of dumb politics.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Engineering the Future

Planning for this summer began a long time ago, back in August of last year. I felt very fortunate to have been able to be part of the goings on at the BU Photonics center in 2010, and spoke with Prof. Altug, my cooperating professor from BU about the possibility of coming back for a second visit. There were really two reasons for doing this – the first one was that we collaborated really well together and helped design some teaching materials that people seemed to like. The second was that seven weeks is waaayyyyy too short of a time to digest even a small percentage of what’s going on at a professional research facility, and I hoped to be able to learn more to bring back for my students. During the year, a few students at SJP and I

made some strides at helping bring more of an understanding of research science to the school, visited a couple of research sites and did some experimenting with lasers. Nanomaterials and Photonics are such hot topics in the world of research right now that both of the AAPT conferences I attended had it as their main topic, and I got to hear from many angles how the world of nano-research is shaping the future of engineering. Along the way in May, we heard back from NSF that our grant proposal for me to come back for another summer was approved – Psych!!

When June of this year rolled around, I got a surprise email from Prof. Altug asking me to go out to RPI for a conference. That turned out to be a fantastic experience – I love visiting schools to see what people do there, and I’d never been to RPI before. My awesome wife took a day off from work to come with me, and we made it into a road trip. What I saw was actually something like an audit – scientists and others from the National Science Foundation were conducting a public hearing of sorts where members of the RPI community described what they had been doing with the millions

in Federal grant money they’d gotten. I’m certainly no expert, but it seemed to me that NSF representatives asked a lot of tough questions, and challenged researchers not only to show progress, but also to prove that they were being responsible with their grant money. My little bit in the thing was to chat with people and explain to them what we had done during my summer RET experience, which turned out to be awesome.

I met with Prof. Ken Connor from RPI, and with professors from several other colleges in the research program, and we sat down together to share teaching strategies. Educational outreach is a huge part of work that professors do these days, and it’s a thread that will work its way through all of the blog posts that I do this summer. There has been a lot of talk centered on the need of U.S. schools to educate more engineers, and to educate citizens about what job opportunities exist in the future. In many ways, developing enough people with technical skills is a fundamental challenge that every society faces in the world today. The group’s work in Ghana centered around making

low-cost education in electrical engineering available through the mobile studio, a piece of hardware developed at RPI. The wealth of our countries is very different, but the challenge is the same – how to present students with a sense of the exciting challenges the future holds, while giving them the tools they need to tackle those challenges.